From Anheuser-Busch’s much-dissected “macro beer” Superbowl ad to chef David Chang’s GQ manifesto on why he hates fancy beer to a recent Jezebel article entitled “Shitty Beer Is the Best Beer and Miller High Life Is Best of All,” which racked up 20,000 Facebook likes, it would appear that mass-market beer is having something of a cultural moment.
One of “shitty” beer’s most unlikely allies? Sommeliers and other notables in the wine industry.
In recent years it has become a meme in the wine world—the terroir-obsessed, small-producer loving, single-vineyard hunting wine world—to glamorize bottom-shelf, mass-produced beer. Instagram feeds from tony wine events juxtapose bottle shots of thousand dollars of Roulot next to iced tubs full of Modelo Especial or flights of Krug against cans of Tecate. Dinner service may be filled with magnums of aged riesling and rare Burgundy, but post-shift currency comes in cases of Genesee.
On one hand, this is entirely delightful, like learning about David Foster Wallace’s love for Stephen King (writers: they’re just like us!). But all of this high-low boosterism can also add up to a strange ideological dissonance, akin to a vegetarian who wears leather or local food activist who smokes schwag. If one pursues—and promotes—fluency in one sector of the beverage world, why not all? And given the rise of craft beer and better-brewed imports from Europe, why is it beer that ends up, in this particular equation, as the low? Why aren’t we seeing photos of emptied bottles of Santa Margherita pinot grigio or pre-mixed Mai Tais at these same events?
Part of mass-market beer’s appeal for a wine professional is that it is essentially tasteless, according to Richard Betts, master sommelier and author of The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide To Becoming a Wine Expert. “Tasting wine is taxing,” he says, about not only the toll that tannins and acid take on one’s palate after tasting many wines, but the concentration it takes to seriously evaluate wine. And when it comes to drinking for fun, the refreshing easy-drinking component of cheap beer is its biggest asset. At The Little Nell, in Aspen, Co., where he used to work, he says, “we have this thing where you walk inside the cooler and pound a beer. There’s really no better beer to do that with than Corona because it’s so light and it’s the least bubbly beer you know. You knock it back quick and get back to your table.”
Patrick Cappiello, sommelier and owner of Pearl & Ash and Rebelle in New York City, agrees that mass-market beer works best as a situational beverage. “Some [craft beers] are super complex, super hoppy… [but] for the most part I don’t want to be challenged by the beer I drink,” he says. “With wine, we talk about it, analyze it, and with beer, sometimes you just want to get a buzz on.” Having a go-to beer for after hours drinking (Cappiello’s is Modelo Especial) that will be available at any bar helps alleviate decision fatigue that comes from working within the wine world’s complexities. “Sometimes you just want to escape from what you love,” he says.
When it comes to analogues for Modelo Especial or Tecate in the wine world—the jugs of Gallo or bottles of Barefoot Bubbly—no one in the beverage industry seems particularly interested in knocking back bottom-shelf picks. “There’s definitely a double standard,” says Dustin Wilson, former sommelier at Eleven Madison Park and star of the documentary SOMM. “I will happily drink inexpensive wine, but it’s usually from producers that I like or regions that I like. I’ve never gotten into boxed wine or Yellowtail.”
Could the attraction to watery beer be that, on some level, the most celebrated examples of craft beer and the fine wines now touted by wine’s elite sommeliers are somewhat incompatible tastewise? For Betts, beer and wine operate on different playing fields: “Yes, beer can be complex—I don’t want to say that it can’t be complex—but I don’t think it’s capable of being as complex or nuanced as wine. When people try really hard to make something complicated, it’s just not that interesting. If you’re talking about oak-aging or brettanomyces, wine just wears it better.”
But for other sommeliers, it is more that craft beer has a time and place. Cappiello notes that when it comes to quality beer, some of his peers choose lighter options, such as kölsch, for recreational drinking. He counts Pliny the Elder and the beers of Captain Lawrence among his craft favorites, but says the right situation for upscale beer is at the restaurant table, not at the bar after work. “Craft beers should be looked at like wine—best suited to have with food,” he says.
But then why doesn’t big brand wine get the same treatment? When it comes to analogues for Modelo Especial or Tecate in the wine world—the jugs of Gallo or bottles of Barefoot Bubbly—no one in the beverage industry seems particularly interested in knocking back bottom-shelf picks. “There’s definitely a double standard,” says Dustin Wilson, former sommelier at Eleven Madison Park and star of the documentary SOMM. “I will happily drink inexpensive wine, but it’s usually from producers that I like or regions that I like. I’ve never gotten into boxed wine or Yellowtail.”
Matt Duckor, the Senior Editor of Epicurious who writes frequently on drinks, speculates that perhaps one of the reasons why crappy beer transmits as a socially acceptable lowbrow quirk, and not wine, is our cultural relationship to the two sectors of the alcohol industry. “I think there’s a longer history of mass-produced beer being accessible,” he says. “Wine has a longer history of connoisseurship. People aren’t used to coveting beer.”
But there’s reason to believe that things are changing. Craft beer is on an undeniable ascent, with breweries opening in the United States at an astounding rate of 1.5 per day. The Brewers Association, which promotes craft beer, recently set a goal of capturing 20 percent of the market share by 2020, and some analysts believe that’s a reasonable hurdle. Duckor also notes the rise of the high-end beer bar in New York. Elegant places such as Brooklyn’s Törst, adjacent to Scandinavian hotspot Luksus, are helping to shift away from the idea that quality beer must come in a rowdy beer garden or brewery type atmosphere and that the flavor profile for well-regarded beer only comes in bold and bolder.
“As the beer world develops and more people get exposed to these better beers, it gets harder to go back to Budweiser,” says Duckor, who says that it took him awhile to get into beer only because he had been focusing on learning about wine. Now, though, he has found much to like, in not only the variety of styles available, but also the more accessible price point. “Beer is accessible [pricewise] in the same way that wine is not.” And it’s in this accessibility, he speculates, that craft and quality beer will become more normalized. “Once you take sense memory and nostalgia out of it, I think in a generation, the base layer will have to be forced to be a lot better. People’s tastes evolve.”
That collective nostalgia factor should not be discounted in understanding why mass-market beer both reigns in the wine world and has become such a visible touchstone on social media. For the modern sommelier, untethered from the three-piece suits and leather-bound wine binder conventions of the past, the conspicuous consumption of big-brand beer is one way to shuffle off the stigmas that come from working in a rarified and sometimes stuffy world. Mass-market beer—on par with the likes of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola in terms of recognizability—is the antithesis of the 48-case production Burgundy. It’s a way of signaling “normal” in an otherwise highly specialized arena.
And so, despite the rapid growth in the specialized beer industry, some sommeliers are still skeptical that craft options could substitute for what makes mass-market beers appealing. “They’ll always have a place; I’m always going to try and see what’s new and interesting that’s out there,” says Richard Betts. “But in the end, I’m going to crack a Tecate or Corona.”
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